Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme
The first ever US-Africa Leaders summit in Washington DC is an important political statement by the US and Africa that both value a deepened relationship.
Barack Obama speaks at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative in Washington, DC on 28 July 2014. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.Barack Obama speaks at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative in Washington, DC on 28 July 2014. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

The value that both sides place on this summit is best demonstrated by the fact that there has been no threat of an African boycott, despite Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe being excluded because of US sanctions on him. Earlier this year, a fourth EU-Africa summit in Brussels attracted 41 heads of state or government but only after a waiver of the EU travel ban on Mugabe was agreed.

African leaders feel a trip to Washington is too important to let Robert Mugabe become a spoiler and Harare itself has been surprisingly quiet over this. It seems that despite Europe’s importance as an aid giver, African leaders get pleasure from irritating Europe’s ex-colonial powers such as Britain but do not want to risk their relationship with the US.

Some 45 (out of 55) African heads of state and government will attend the US-Africa Leaders summit. Only four leaders were not invited; Mugabe and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because of US sanctions on them, and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and the Central African Republic’s President Catherine Samba-Panza – because of African Union (AU) concerns. Morocco is attending although not recognized by the AU because this is a bilateral US summit with African partners. (US officials point out China does not invite leaders of states that recognize Taiwan to its summits). A few other leaders have declined to attend, the Zambian and Algerian presidents probably because of health reasons and the Angolan president, probably because there are no bilateral meetings with President Barack Obama on offer. The Sierra Leone and Liberian presidents are not attending due to the deadly Ebola outbreak in their countries and the leader of Guinea may also not show.

The Washington-based business lobby, the Corporate Council on Africa, feared that the lack of one-to-one audiences with President Obama would dampen attendance. But African leaders are flocking to Washington to attend this summit and even paying their own way because they want to and not because President Obama’s birthday happens to also fall on 4 August, the day the summit starts. Clearly a summit with the US has strong attraction – helped by the Obama magic.

That some 45 African leaders are in Washington together for the first time obscures the summit's lack of depth. The idea for a US-Africa Leaders summit came from the White House but there have been turf battles over it between different government agencies and this partly explains this fuzziness. There are three broad topics: Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace and Regional Stability, and Governing for the Next Generation. Sessions will be chaired by President Obama at the White House, but it’s the business and policy meetings on the fringes where much of the true action will take place. It feels like a speed dating exercise, with business people having to choose who to meet between nearly 50 African nations all promoting themselves as favourable investment destinations. A US-Africa CEO summit, organized by the secretary of commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies on 5 August, will also help to highlight the potential of African markets for US corporate investors.

Despite President Obama’s African heritage (his father was Kenyan), Africa has been a low priority so far during the two terms of the Obama Administration. The president has visited the continent three times and launched a number of promising programmes such as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010, the African Food Summit in 2012, and the Power Africa Initiative in 2013.  Although groups of African leaders have officially met President Obama, no African head of state has been given a state dinner at the White House. This summit is an attempt to seek an Africa legacy for the Obama administration.

The summit shows also that the US is playing catch up, as Africa summits are increasingly commonplace. In addition to the EU, China, India, France and Japan hold them regularly and South Korea and Turkey have summits planned for later in 2014.  What makes this one different is that although there will be a state dinner on the White House lawn for all presidents and an interactive dialogue with African leaders chaired by President Obama at the State Department, there will be no final document or action plan from it.

However, this summit will be more than an African birthday party for President Obama if it achieves measurable results. Nobody knows yet if and when a follow-up summit will occur. US officials I met in Washington recently told me they want to see how the summit goes first. This is understandable but an institutionalized process to measure US-Africa relations is a good idea. This is good for Africa and good for the US, which at long last is moving away from just seeing Africa as a continent of disasters and is beginning to see it as one of opportunity. It is for this reason that 45+ African leaders are attending the summit in Washington and this summit could be used to push that process forward.

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